All 130 foreign students, including 129 Indians, detained in the US for enrolling in a fake university were aware that they were committing a crime to fraudulently remain in America, the State Department has said, amid claims that they knew nothing about the varsity's illegal operation. The department's response came after India issued a demarche to the American Embassy in New Delhi on Saturday, expressing its concern over the detention of Indian students and sought immediate consular access to them.
The foreign students were arrested last week by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for enrolling at the University of Farmington allegedly to remain in America. The fake university was set up by the DHS's investigating unit in Greater Detroit area to bust the "pay-and-stay" racket.
Eight individuals -- either Indian citizens or Indian-Americans -- have been arrested for running the racket. They have pleaded "not guilty" before a federal court in Michigan. One of them, Phanideep Karnati, 35, who is on a H-1B visa and lives in Louisville, Kentucky was released on a bond of USD 10,000 on Monday. The seven others - Barath Kakireddy, Suresh Kandala, Prem Rampeesa, Santosh Sama, Avinash Thakkallapally, Aswanth Nune, and Naveen Prathipati – consented to their continued detention before a judge in the Eastern District of Michigan, where they were produced along with Karnati.
"All participants in this scheme knew that the University of Farmington had no instructors or classes (neither on-line nor in-person) and were aware they were committing a crime in an attempt to fraudulently remain in the United States," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement Monday. The fake university which had no classes, a low tuition fee and gave work permits on the very first day of the enrolment had some 600 students, an overwhelming majority of whom are Indians.
The actual number of those detained is much higher. Some of the students were released from detention and many of those who escaped detention have left the country. An unknown number of Indian students have been radio tagged and authorities have put restrictions on their movement.
The Indian Embassy here has made an aggressive effort to reach out to these students and is providing them with legal help with the support of the community leaders. In New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that India has obtained consular access to 117 of the 129 Indian students detained in the US and legal assistance was being extended to them.
The Indian government has continued to closely monitor and take proactive measures to deal with the detention of Indian students, the ministry said. "As on date, our embassy and consulates have obtained consular access to 117 of them, by pro-actively visiting 36 different detention sites through the length and breadth of the country," it said.
Efforts for consular access to the remaining 12 are continuing, including through the 24/7 helpline set up by the Indian embassy and outreach to the community, it said. "We remain in touch with the US authorities, both at the federal and local level, to ensure and satisfy ourselves about humane and dignified treatment of the Indian students and custom-sensitive dietary and living arrangement for them during the period of their detention," it added.
Immigration attorneys have criticised authorities for using "troubling" methods to trap them. They said the students were not aware of the varsity's illegitimate operation. Eminent Indian-Americans and some media outlets have also questioned the modus operandi of the US government in busting the racket, saying "trapping of innocent students" is a "crime".
In the first reaction, days after the story broke out, the State Department had described it an unfortunate aberration in the proud history of India-US educational exchanges. "More than a million international students' study at US institutions each year, including approximately 196,000 Indian students last year. Instances of fraud schemes are rare, unfortunate aberrations in the proud history of educational exchange between the US and India," it said.
The US government fully supports international education and is committed to facilitating legitimate student travel, it said in an apparent reference to the panic that the latest US move has created and reports coming out from India that students are now considering option to study in other countries and not the US. "International students are a valuable asset to our universities and our economy and enrich our communities through sharing their diverse perspectives, skills, and experiences," it said, acknowledging that Indian students not only bring in about USD 6 billion per annum but also become instrumental in creation of thousands of jobs in the US.
"It is unfortunate that some student recruiters and individuals seek to use the international student programme to foster illegal immigration status in the US," it said. "It is very unfortunate that several students are affected by this University and majority are Telugu students. Most of these students have joined to get their work permits without knowing that this college is not accredited and became victims of this. Their dreams are shattered now," North America Telugu Association said.
It advised other students not to fall into the trap and instead work hard and get Optional Practical Training and Curricular Practical Training from reputed universities as per the normal guidelines.